By Elizabeth Devan
“Putting on a facade” is usually frowned upon. But putting a new facade on the historic Athens Theatre in New Bern has the enthusiastic support of a throng of theatre-goers, history lovers and townspeople.
New Bern Civic Theatre has taken on this labor of love, calling it “The Athens Renaissance Project.” Started on June 8 and due to finish this fall if all goes well, the project’s goal is to restore the theatre’s front to a look very similar to the original.
Why bother? The Athens has managed to stay open since the 1980s, when NBCT bought the building. Community theatre is thriving on the inside, drawing crowds to dramas, musical plays, children’s theatre, and youth-directed productions by the NBCT’s Saax Bradbury Players. Since first opening its doors in April, 1911, the Athens has been home to silent movies, Vaudeville acts, talking movies and live theatre. The theater’s name has changed numerous times: “Show Shop Theatre” from 1930s to 40s’ “Kehoe Theatre,“ 1943 until about 1950; “Tryon Theatre,” through 1979.
The building’s face has changed less often than its name. It was given an Art Deco look in the 1940s, with very little resemblance to its original classic style. After most of the Art Deco façade was removed, leaving brick above and green tiles below, a wide stripe was painted diagonally on the façade. By the 1980s, the exterior appeared to have been decorated by a wild committee of artists working from four different plans, with no communication among them.
Why bother to return the Athens to its former beauty? Frankly, the exterior of the Athens Theatre had become “a mess,” “an eyesore,” and it “detracts from the beauty of one of New Bern’s prettiest downtown streets,” according to people who love this building.
“We want the outside of the building to reflect the quality of what is going on inside. New Bern is beautiful,” said Angelica Doyle, executive direct of the New Bern Civic Theatre, which calls the building home. “We want the Athens to be beautiful also.
“I hope that the new facade will help people of the community feel like they are coming home, walking into history,” Doyle added. “There is something about this place, and the people who are here, and community theatre. It is warm and inviting, always changing, gathering people from all walks of life who are passionate about theatre – they are all volunteers – and they love it. This is being part of a family.”
Doyle herself joined this “family” in 2006 when she was a stay-at-home mom, an ex-Marine with three sons wanting to find a new hobby. She tried out for an acting role at New Bern Civic Theatre, got it, and was soon drawn deeper and deeper. First she acted, then she painted scenery, then she started helping as an administrative assistant in the office and with marketing. In 2010, Doyle was hired as executive director of the theater. She is in charge of the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit group; the only other paid position is the role of office manager held by Jen Blalock.
A new facade for the Athens was on Doyle’s list of three- to five-year goals. But she wasn’t the first one to wish for it.
Serious talks had taken place in 2006 at the theater regarding major renovations, but then the economic recession hit and theatre groups around the country were fighting just to stay alive. Major repairs and upgrading had to be put on the proverbial back burner.
The need for safety demanded some repairs, such as redoing the battens (pipes hanging from the ceiling) and replacing ropes backstage for moving scenery, lights and curtains. Old, worn-out hemp was replaced by more stable nylon ropes. Also, the front entry had to be repaired, due to frequent flooding. Volunteers worked hard and kept costs down. The facade, a huge project, would have to wait.
A few improvements inside the Athens came from generous donations. “Gently used” theatre seats were donated by Craven Community College and installed by volunteers. This project would have cost about $70,000 without donated goods and labor.
In 2010, new carpeting inside the theatre was donated by bestselling author Nicholas Sparks, who lives in New Bern and has held “red carpet events” for his new movies, including the 2012 for the premier of “The Lucky One.”
New seats, new carpet, new ropes and battens, fixed-up entryway: this is all good. However, the hodgepodge exterior of this historically important theater remained. This situation distracts from the building’s historic significance and the great live theater the theater company provides. It also detracts from the beauty of one of New Bern’s prettiest downtown streets. Thus reads the brochure produced by NBCT’s “The Athens Renaissance Project.” The Harold H. Bates Foundation awarded the theater a $40,000 matching grant toward the estimated $100,000 cost of a full exterior renovation. Donors provided the $40,000 needed to match.
Doyle said, “People are excited – they have been willing to give to this project even though there are many projects in our community asking for donations. We are very close to our total goal of $100,000, and anyone is welcome to make tax deductible gifts.”
Herbert B. Simpson was the original architect for the Athens. According to the North Carolina State Archives, Simpson’s façade combined “Neo-Classical and Beaux-Arts stylistic elements … crowning the façade was a Baroque curvilinear pediment.”
New Bern was once affectionately referred to as “The Athens of North Carolina,” perhaps because of Greek revival architecture used on many of the city’s buildings. This is very likely the reason for the theatre’s original name.
New Bern architect, Charles Francis, designed the new facade. He worked from early photos and what remains of earlier features of the building.
“The facade was a mess when we started,” Francis said. “The exterior had not been taken care of through the years, especially in the 1970s and 80s. We popped off the green tiles from the Art Deco design of the 40s and carefully removed rusted nails from the masonry. We couldn’t remove a lot of the paint without damaging the masonry.”
The exquisite “crown” of the original building included two large lyres and many curves.
“The new facade will be toned down a little – it would be too expensive to duplicate the original with those lyres, for example,” said Francis. “Our basic idea is to take it back to a character very similar to the original. Where changes over time have made it impossible to go back, we aim for adaptive re-use.”
In 2014, a new sign was added to the theatre, by JoeSigns of New Bern. It will be incorporated into the new façade. Eventually, Angelina Doyle hopes, the interior of the building will receive more attention. For now, the “Athens Renaissance Project” is enough.
“We can’t do the whole project at once,” Doyle said. “We must stay open.”
The show, as they say, must go on!